While promoting the movie “Suffragette” last week in an interview with Time Out London, Meryl Streep was asked if she was a feminist. Anyone familiar with Streep’s history as a fiercely strong leading lady who has lobbied Congress for the creation of an equal rights amendment, joyously celebrated Patricia Arquette’s rallying cry for equal pay and funded a screenwriting lab for women over 40, would have expected an affirmative response. Even without context, an interview focused on a film about women’s fight for the right to vote in England would lead readers to expect a resounding yes. However, Streep chose to eschew the term, opting to refer to herself as a “humanist” instead, claiming she is “for a nice easy balance.” This implies that Streep believes feminists are not striving for gender equality, when in fact this is the movement’s most basic tenet.
To begin with, humanism and feminism are two distinct theories. The former is a branch of philosophy that promotes the idea that humans are logically moral beings that do not depend on religion to lead ethical lives. Despite this definition, it is clear that Streep is using the term to avoid the perceived divisiveness of feminism. In a way, this is similar to claiming that all lives matter in the face of the BlackLivesMatter movement. In both cases, a specific group is being systematically oppressed, and is thus deserving of the support implicit in the titles of their movements. By erasing the “fem” from feminism, we deny that women specifically are the beneficiaries that need to be removed from their historical subjugation and raised up to a place of equality regardless of gender.
Unfortunately, Streep’s rejection of the feminist epithet is not an isolated occurrence. Just last week French actress Marion Cotillard echoed the same sentiment in an interview with Porter magazine in which she said, “I don’t qualify myself as a feminist.” She explained her stance by claiming, “Sometimes in the word ‘feminism’ there’s too much separation.” Streep, Cotillard and the discouragingly long list of female celebrities who have refused to identify as feminists must choose instead to embrace feminism’s true meaning and use their positions of privilege to champion the movement.
Streep, who vocalizes the need for more female voices in the film industry just two questions after her “humanist” claim in the Time Out interview, is a feminist. Her actions speak louder than her ill-chosen words. But in a world where gender equality has yet to be achieved, words must be paired with actions. Streep and celebrities like her must serve as vocal role models for a new generation of unapologetic feminists devoted to the pursuit of equality, unburdened by petty semantics.
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A version of this article appeared in the October 5 print edition. Email Elizabeth Moore at [email protected]